So you’re a charity or nonprofit looking at how to choose a CRM. Where do you even get started? There are a lot of different options on the market and you’re going to have to come up with some criteria to rate them against.

With this in mind, we’ll be taking you through some of the things you’ll want to consider and how you might want to go about it! By the end of this article, you should be able to form the structure of a list and be ready to discuss with your team what you’re looking for.

How do you know what you need?

Let’s start at the beginning - how do you even know what you need? You’ve probably read or been told a database would help your organisation grow. That it would let you achieve all sorts of tasks more efficiently and open up new opportunities. But how can you break this down into a checklist that you can compare against the products on the market? 

We like to ask 2 key questions before we start any project:

1. What does success look like?

Start from the end! Thinking about the end results (e.g. more donations, better membership retention, an easier way to distribute grants) can be a great way to understand your true needs. If you can articulate where you want to get to, plotting a path to get there will be much (much!) easier. You can also use this as an opportunity to align different members of your team on what are the real goals of the project.

2. How will you measure it? 

A good way to make your objectives tangible is to try and make them measurable! After all, how will you know whether you've reached your goals if there is no way to measure that you did? Your goals should be specific and quantifiable where possible so think about making a scorecard with measurable KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) to show if the project has been a success, e.g. increase online donations by 10%, or reduce the amount of time that it takes to perform our direct debit run by half a day. 

Things to consider when you choose your CRM

Having reflected on what you’re looking to achieve, you’re now ready to put together your criteria. First, we’ll take a look at…

1. Features

The obvious place most people start when they choose a CRM. Does it have the features I want? Which features do you actually need? 

One thing to keep in mind is that there might be features you need, but also some that are not absolutely vital. As such it’s really important to try and prioritise. One method is the MoSCoW method where you identify what the system M - Must have, S - Should have, C - Could have, W - Won't have.

That will help you when you look at potential systems, not to inflate costs or bloat your system with too many features, or to at least implement the most important things first.

The next step is to gather feature requirements:

  1. Review the needs of each team. Buying a new database is a big organisational move and you want to understand how each of your teams can take advantage of that. Consulting them early will also help with getting their buy-in and future adoption.  The best way to gather requirements is to map out your organisation’s processes to understand all the steps of what they do. We’ll shortly have another blog post with some ideas on how to do that!
  1. Look for guides on what a charity database system can do. You can check out some of our other articles on what you might look for from events functionality or how having a  self-service portal within your CRM can make a difference to membership organisations.
  1. Make a list. Once you’ve considered everything, it’s time to make your feature checklist. Try to keep your success criteria in mind, focusing more on what the platform will help you achieve rather than getting into the detail of how it will work. CRMs can often achieve things in different (often more efficient) ways compared to manual processes so focus on outcomes more than the ‘how’.

2. Non functional requirements

Outside of features there are a few other things you’re going to need from your CRM that will completely depend on your scale. You might want to think about things such as the data storage or how many emails you can send. If you’re very small, then these are things you’re unlikely to have to worry about now, but if you’re scaling up then they’re something to keep in mind.

An important one here might also be the number of users the CRM will grant you. How many come included with the base package? Will you also need read-only access for some users? Perhaps you want members to be able to access a certain part of your database. There are several things to consider here and you want to consider both your essential and ideal requirements.

One final question might be whether you want a cloud or on-premise solution. If you’re a small organisation, we’d normally recommend going with a cloud solution. An on-premise solution requires you to manage a server to host your database, which adds expense and requires extra maintenance.

3. Budget

There’s no conversation about which CRM you should choose that won’t involve budget. As a charity or nonprofit, you’re going to need to be justifying your expenses and looking for good value for money. So how can you set a realistic budget for a CRM?

Your budget should be split between the cost to implement the system and the ongoing running costs. The running costs may simply be licence fees, or maybe more complex such as including hosting and maintenance as well.

You should expect that implementation will most likely include stages such as:

  1. Discovery
  2. Configuration
  3. Data migration
  4. Training

So you may want to think about what a realistic number of days would be for all of the above. Projects can be small or large but make sure you allocate a budget to cover time for each of the above stages. 

For those on a smaller budget, there are still some amazing low cost options available. Our pick, CiviCRM, is open source, meaning that it is completely free to download and use! But with an open source tool, you will need to host and maintain it yourself and so may want to use a CiviCRM service such as CiviPlus, our completely maintained CiviCRM platform. Also, remember that just because something is low cost (or free!), doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t invest time to implement it properly, you should still allocate staff time to make sure you implement the system carefully.

4. Organisational resources to implement

If you are embarking on this journey, it’s going to be important to consider the impact of implementing a new system on your team.

It’s helpful to try and plan so that you have someone who can take ownership of the project. Making sure that they have enough time in their day alongside the rest of their work is going to be key! On the other hand, they can’t do it alone and making sure that others take the time to provide the information and feedback for their teams will also be key. Picking the right time of year therefore can be vital - don’t plan a CRM implementation during your major conference for example!

Often, especially for smaller teams and larger implementations, it’s best to bring in an expert. They’ll likely set you up faster and with efficient processes that come from experience. How much help you’ll need will depend entirely on your own knowledge and budget, so consider what you have carefully and strike the right balance!


There are many factors you’ll want to consider when you choose your new CRM. Some, such as the features or budget are obvious, but be sure to consider non-functional requirements and how flexible the CRM is as well to futureproof your choice. Framing everything through the angle of how it will help you succeed in a measurable way is also a great way to plan ahead and will allow you to make an informed strategic choice that will help advance your cause.

If you would like help when choosing your CRM or are starting to think about how to implement one, then please get in touch with us! We’re always here to help.